Safe haven laws have been enacted all over the country in order to allow overwhelmed parents to leave infants in safe places like hospitals and police stations without repercussion. Despite using language like “minor” or “child” as opposed to “infant” with the surface intent of protecting all children, these laws were never actually intended to cover tweens and teens whose parents find themselves without the will or means to care for them.
Nebraska in particular has come into the public eye after nearly thirty children have been left by parents under the safe haven law in recent months, ranging from infancy to 18 year-olds. Now children from out of state are being left as well. The legislative issue is that a linguistic loophole has allowed some to interpret the law “to mean that children as old as 18 could be abandoned. Others have taken the common-law definition of “child,” which includes those under age 14.”
The irony is that safe haven laws were designed against the “dumpster baby” over-reported pseudo-phenomenon of the late 90’s in order to prevent panicky teen mothers from freaking out over their secret pregnancies and dumping their babies at prom, encouraging them to surrender infants safely instead of aborting, killing, or discarding them. The real issue is that the state is bombarded with parents and guardians too overwhelmed to take care of their kids and the state doesn’t know what to do.
Now Nebraska lawmakers are attempting a band-aid solution for the issue by simply trying to outlaw the abandonment of older children without (to my knowledge) a more comprehensive look at why the children are left in the first place. Reported issues do not directly, surprisingly, have a lot to do with economic circumstances, but reportedly with issues managing behavior of difficult children, kids with behavioral and psychiatric disorders. While economic issues add additional stress and worry to existing difficult situations, most of the families and children who used safe haven laws were reported to have been unable to access services to aid the family with counseling and support, or were unable to get results from these services.
Mark Courtney, an expert on child welfare at the University of Washington, said that what happened in Nebraska “would happen in any state.”
“These days there’s a huge void in services for helping distressed families,” Mr. Courtney said.
When children are abused or neglected, they can be taken by the child-welfare system, and possibly enter foster care. When they commit crimes, they enter the juvenile justice system. In both cases, children and parents are supposed to receive counseling and other aid.
But when troubled children do not fit those categories, they often fall through the cracks, Mr. Courtney said. Even middle-income families with health insurance often have only paltry coverage for psychiatric services and cannot afford intensive or residential treatment programs. The poorest, on Medicaid, often have trouble finding therapists who will take the low rates. And some parents are reluctant to seek whatever help does exist.
Psych services are infamously unavailable to the under- and uninsured unless one is a ward of the state. And sometimes when a child becomes a ward of the state services are over-assigned, so families whose employers aren’t as flexible, who don’t have the money to subsidize sliding-scale services, and have existing priorities for other children in the family, find it exceedingly difficult to move toward a successful family reunion. Moreover, family services are starved for cash and their clients are made to feel ashamed for needing their services in the first place.
Should these laws be revised to remove eligibility for children of a certain age to be admitted by parents as wards of the state, or is it better that kids are safely leaving environments in which their parents feel unable to care for them?
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